The campaign to restore Warren Falls in the Columbia River Gorge is over, at least for now.
The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is putting the final touches on the latest section of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail, from Starvation Creek to Lindsey Creek (more on that in part two of this article), and undoing their diversion tunnel at Warren Falls was not part of the deal.
While Warren Creek now has an especially handsome bridge on the new state trail, the dry cliffs of beautiful Warren Falls (below) will continue to be a ghostly testament to the arrogance and carelessness of our modern age – except on those rare stormy days each winter when the falls briefly reappears (above).
Restoring the falls would have been the perfect companion to the HCRH State Trail project, itself an epic restoration project. Samuel Lancaster would surely have approved, too. It was a once in a century opportunity to do the work while heavy equipment was right in front of the falls. But if fighting City Hall is an uphill battle, then the castle walls at ODOT are still more foreboding.
The agency isn’t a monolith. There was encouragement and support from sympathetic professionals at ODOT along the way, albeit plenty of opposition from others. In the end, the agency formerly known only as the Oregon Highway Department revealed its roots, reluctant to step beyond its narrow right-of-way.
And yet the Historic Highway State Trail project, itself, is a bold step forward from simply building highways, and one the agency has been truly committed to. Thus, I’m hopeful about ODOT’s future, and the new state trail has much for us to be proud of.
[click here for a larger view]
Perhaps most disappointing is ODOT’s lack of ownership and sense of responsibility for a stream diversion project that today would be considered a crime against nature. Even when Warren Creek was diverted and the falls destroyed in 1939, it was jarringly at odds with the vision and reverence for the landscape of Samuel Lancaster’s Columbia River Highway, and should have sent up red flags for the Highway Department.
Still more astonishing was learning during the course of this project that none other than Conde McCullough – engineering deity to many as the designer of Oregon’s most treasured highway bridges of the 1920s and 30s – signed off on the diversion project while serving as chief engineer!
Worse, we also learned along the way that it was completely illegal to destroy the falls, even back in 1939, as revealed in this article on the blog. Oregon wasn’t a very big place back then, so it’s hard to believe the law protecting the falls went unnoticed at the time… but the truth on that point will likely never be known.
Perhaps the greatest irony in the Warren Falls saga is that the original diversion project was designed to protect one the bridges on Sam Lancaster’s famous new road – by destroying one of the more spectacular waterfalls along the route. Lancaster died in March 1941, so it’s doubtful that he was even aware of the project as it moved forward in 1939. Let’s hope so, anyway.
Today, the crumbling diversion dam and tunnel are still listed as “assets” by ODOT, but are really just orphans, and now all but forgotten by the agency for the foreseeable future. Short of Oregon Parks and Recreation (OPRD) taking on the decommissioning as part of some sort of larger Warren Creek restoration project, the most likely outcome is continued deterioration of the diversion structure until nature finally reclaims it.
So, the campaign to restore Warren Falls is over… or is it?
Postscript… and premonition?
After years of attending meetings, writing letters, giving tours to all manner of advocates and officials and even a segment on OPB’s “Oregon Field Guide”, there weren’t many stones left to turn in coaxing ODOT to bring Warren Falls back to its original glory. On the surface, there’s very little to show for the effort.
But is that really true? It depends on how you define victory.
Yes, in the immediate future ODOT will continue to treat Warren Creek like a glorified storm culvert, and the former Warren Falls will continue to be a depository for “trash” (what the original engineers called the rock and woody debris we now know are essential to a stream health) separated from the creek’s flow. That’s a shame, and a missed opportunity for the agency to show that it has evolved from its “Highway Department” past.
But over the past five years, tens of thousands of people have learned the story of Warren Falls thanks to the OPB coverage, thousands more have viewed the WyEast Blog stories here and on the Restore Warren Falls Facebook page, and hundreds have visited the falls site, with more making the side trip each year to pay homage to what once was – and will be, again.
Until they see the silent cliffs where Warren Falls once flowed, most of these visitors have no idea that today’s Hole-in-the-Wall Falls is simply a man-made attraction that came at the cost of destroying Warren Falls. Armed with the history of Warren Falls, few who visit can view it as anything less than an environmental tragedy.
So, despite losing this round, Warren Falls has a lot of new friends, and a lot of people who love the Gorge have gained a better understanding of the lasting cost of “progress” and the chore of undoing our handiwork, even in places we seek to protect most.
Which brings me to…
(Not so) Secrets of the Monkey Wrench Gang…
Oh, how I wish I could share all of the schemes for liberating Warren Falls that have come my way over the past five years! They range from temporary performance art to more permanent alterations that would probably be illegal… if any governing entities were actually concerned about the fate of Warren Falls.
Still more surprising is the range of Monkey-Wrench-Gang-wannabes who proposed taking the restoration of Warren Falls into their own hands: you’ll just have to use your imagination, but some were rather prominent folks who left me speechless with their audacious plans.
So, I’ll share a few highlights, with the strict caveat from the WyEast Blog Legal Department:
NONE OF THESE ACTIVITIES APPEARS TO BE LEGAL, at least not without prior permission from the OPRD or ODOT (and good luck with that, by the way), and therefore the following DOES NOT CONDONE OR ENDORSE these ideas in any way!
Whew. Okay, well one of the most popular schemes is to roll plastic tarps over the giant “trash rack” that forms the screen over the Warren diversion tunnel. This would allow the pristine waters of Warren Creek to ride a plastic liner above the tunnel and over the natural falls. Sort of a giant slippery-slide, but with a real surprise at the end!
Someday (on my deathbed, or possibly at the dedication of a restored Warren Falls?) I may reveal an especially prominent individual who personally pitched a version of the slippery slide to me – truly, one of the more unexpected twists in this five-year saga!
Most versions of the slippery slide focused on getting a really good look at what an unaltered Warren Falls looked like via a temporary restoration. But Warren Creek gets pretty wild and wooly in winter, so this would likely be a very brief restoration.
There’s also the question of what would happen to the tarps, once swept away, as there is a lot of potential for adding more man-made junk to an already defaced stream (assuming the tarps didn’t get hung up on the cliffs or left hanging form the outflow to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls).
Others suggested (WyEast Blog Legal Department repeat notice: not condoning this!) speeding up the “weathering” process that has already begun to expose and compromise the steel beams that form the “trash rack” at the top of the falls.
It turns out that in just the ten years since I’ve been advocating to restore the falls, this part of the diversion has shown noticeable deterioration, and seems to be speeding up. It turns out the top of the “trash rack” is the weakest point in the design, and is steadily unraveling. So, I’m not sure Mother Nature needs much help at this point, despite the enthusiastic volunteers out there.
These photos show the vulnerability of the steel “trash rack” beams where the mortar that once fully embedded them above the diversion tunnel has been significantly compromised since 1939 by the relentless flow Warren Creek:
The motive for speeding up the release of the beams varies among schemes and schemers.
One version is to allow enough stream material to pass under the protective “trash rack” to plug up the surprisingly narrow diversion tunnel leading to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls. Which is just 60” in diameter. This is probably what Mother Nature has in mind, though it may take awhile.
Another angle on speeding up the weathering at the top of the steel beams is to allow larger debris (logs, large rocks) to wedge between the beams, thus acting as levers to literally tear it apart with hydraulic pressure during high stream flow. To a large extent, this is already happening, as at least half the rack is plugged with smaller cobbles that are twisting and bending the steel beams with the effects of freeze and thaw during the winter months.
At least one Warren Falls fan spotted the open vault above the west end of the diversion structure and suggested diverting the creek into this hole (WyEast Blog Legal Department reprise: this is not an endorsement! Plus, you might fall into a tunnel that spit out as a man-made waterfall!), where it could move debris large enough to plug the bypass tunnel. I’m not positive, but I think solid basalt prevents this from happening – either through creative monkey-wrenching or courtesy Mother Nature. But I was impressed at the attention to detail from those who love Warren Falls!
As much as I enjoyed hearing these inspired pitches for a DIY restoration of Warren Falls, one of the reasons I advocated for removing the “trash rack” structure and filling the bypass tunnel in an orderly way was to avoid having a bunch of steel debris entombed at the lip of this beautiful falls. I’d still much prefer a thoughtful decommissioning of the diversion over a disorganized mess – whether triggered by humans or nature.
We owe it to future generations to do this right. And who knows, we may still get the chance!
What the Future Holds: Warren’s Cousins
Short of an unforeseen intervention, the restoration of Warren Falls by forces of nature will take awhile. But it turns out that Warren Falls has some similarly trod-upon cousins in the area who have suffered flagrant abuse, then been abandoned to recover on their own.
The good news: in all cases, nature is winning… albeit, very slowly.
A spectacular example is White River Falls, located in a state park by that name on the east side of Mount Hood. The falls is just upstream from the confluence of the White River with the Deschutes River.
More than a century ago, the Wasco Milling Company diverted much of the falls to a giant pipeline that fed a powerhouse downstream. Energy from the powerhouse was transmitted to The Dalles. Wasco Milling later sold the plant to Pacific Power, and it was finally shut down in 1960, when the land was transferred to the state of Oregon.
Pacific Power left quite a mess behind. The abandoned power plant, numerous pipelines and the diversion dam all still survive on state park land today. During high runoff in winter and spring the diversion channel is overwhelmed, and the former glory of White River Falls is on display. But by late summer, the entire flow is still diverted into the bypass channel, tumbling around the falls where the diversion pipe once existed.
In this way, the situation at White River is not unlike present-day Hole-in-the-Wall Falls burping out of the Warren Falls bypass tunnel where it once connected to a flume that carried the creek over the old highway and to the Columbia River.
And like Warren Falls, the bypass channel “falls” at White River is a sad, ugly duckling compared to the magnificent original falls. But while there is no plan to formally decommission the diversion at White River Falls, the approach to the diversion dam is increasingly clogged with silt and debris, and should eventually fail, finally closing the chapter on the Wasco Milling Company era.
A few years ago, I reported on a now-scrapped scheme by Wasco County officials to reboot the White River generating plant, proving once again the wise words of John Muir: “Nothing dollarable is safe.” Even in an Oregon state park, it turns out.
A closer cousin to Warren Falls is popular Bridal Veil Falls, located at the far west end of the Columbia Gorge. Though few of the thousands of visitors who hike to the base of Bridal Veil Falls each year can even imagine what this spot looked like just a few decades ago, it was one of the most heavily degraded areas in the Gorge.
The mill town of Bridal Veil was once located just 100 yards below the falls, though the town is now nothing more than concrete foundations and rusted cables covered in moss and undergrowth. In this eastward view (below) from the early 1900s, today’s Bridal Veil exit from I-84 to Multnomah Falls would be located near the buildings at the far end of the mill town.
The pile of rough-cut timber in the foreground marks the terminus of log flumes that fed the Bridal Veil mill. At least three timber flumes carried logs and rough lumber to the mill from the slopes of Larch Mountain. One flume closely followed Bridal Veil Creek with the kind of roller coaster ride theme park “log rides” have tried to replicate ever since.
In the scene below (from about 1900) the audacious scale of the flume is evident as it courses down the canyon, about a mile above Bridal Veil Falls, and just below Middle Bridal Veil Falls. The area had already been heavily logged by this time and the stream was viewed as nothing more than a steady water source and convenient path for moving old-growth timber to the mill.
This view (below) of the converging flumes coming into the mill site conceals Bridal Veil Falls, which is located directly beneath the flumes. Today’s trail to the falls would have travelled under all three flumes where they converge in this scene.
Bridal Veil Falls not only had a trio of log flumes passing overhead, the falls itself was also modified by the mill, presumably to carry water to the mill (though this is just my own speculation – I’d love to hear from mill historians who know more about this!)
The photo below shows the falls in the late 1800s, just before the lower tier had been raised about 15 feet, creating a pool below the upper tier and allowing for a diversion structure (?) to presumably carry a piped portion of the creek to the nearby mill.
During periods of low water today, you can still see parts of the diversion structure at Bridal Veil Falls poking from the water (below).
Here are detailed views of the diversion structure that raised the lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls to what we see today:
This rare view from the early 1900s shows the diversion structure already in ruins or perhaps under construction? In either case, its purpose only lasted a short period, and in this way the falls is a kindred spirit to Warren Falls, where the short-lived diversion functioned for barely a decade before becoming obsolete and abandoned.
Today, there are still a lot of concrete and steel reminders of the mill town, though they’re often hidden in plain sight, under layers of rust, moss and ferns. For example, this view (below) of the stream below Bridal Veil Falls reveals a “boulder” that is actually a concrete footing and an intake pipe for one of the mill ponds.
Other large waterfalls on Bridal Veil Creek were impacted by the mill operation, but have recovered dramatically in the decades since the mill finally closed in the 1960s. Here are then-and-now photos of Middle and Upper Bridal Veil Falls:
[click here for a larger version]
[click here for a larger version]
In more recent years, stolen automobiles have periodically been pushed from the cliffs along historic Palmer Mill Road into Bridal Veil canyon. Some of these dumped vehicles have been pulled from the canyon, but others are too difficult to reach, and are slowly fading into the forest.
While they have undoubtedly released engine fluids into the creek and have plastic parts that will last for decades, nature and Bridal Veil Creek are nonetheless making short work of the rest of these vehicles.
Unlike Warren Falls, the waterfalls on Bridal Veil Creek were never completely diverted from their natural streambed, yet the overall impact of logging and milling at Bridal Veil had a much larger impact on the larger watershed than anything Warren Creek endured. The fact that Mother Nature has consumed most of what wasn’t salvaged when the flumes were pulled from Bridal Veil canyon in the mid-1900s is an inspiration for the ongoing recovery of Warren Falls.
In time, all traces of our impact on the environment really can heal – provided we allow it to happen. Responsibly cleaning up after ourselves would be a more noble path, of course, but at least nature seems to forgive us in time… so far.
Warren Falls Lives!
A few weeks ago, the local waterfall hunting community had a brief moment of excitement when a vintage 1918 film seemed to include a rare view of Warren Falls! But after looking more closely at the images, it turned out to be Horsetail Falls in very low flow. So, the hunt for a photograph of Warren Falls before the 1939 diversion project continues.
But the similarity was real, so the following is a rough guess of what we might see – and perhaps, sooner than we think: Warren Falls flowing again, returning its amazing amphitheater to mossy green, as the diversion structure continues to crumble into history.
[click here for a large version]
Of course, we already know what a small amount of flow over Warren Falls looks like during high runoff events, as shown in previous photos in this article. What we don’t know is what the full force of Warren Creek might look like coming over this 120-foot escarpment, and especially what it might do with 77 years of accumulated stream debris piled at the base of the natural falls.
We have a pretty good idea, though, based on recent dam removals around the Pacific Northwest. It turns out that streams are surprisingly quick to redistribute accumulated debris and restore themselves to their natural stream state, as we’ve seen with dam removals on the Hood, Little Sandy and White Salmon rivers.
Today, Warren Creek below falls has been reduced to ditch, radically moved by ODOT from its former channel in the 1950s and devoid of the rocks and woody debris essential to a healthy stream since 1939, thanks to the “trash rack”.
[click here for a large version]
When Warren Falls returns, the huge pile of stream debris will begin to move downstream, and the debris-starved lower section of Warren Creek will develop the pools and eddies necessary for salmon and steelhead to spawn, as imagined above.
The good news is that the new HCRH State Trail passes high and wide over Warren Creek, ensuring that the creek can evolve back to a natural state in the future without a redux of the 1930s highway impacts that led to the diversion of Warren Falls.
When will Warren Falls return? Not just now… but perhaps sooner than we think.
Meanwhile, we wait… and watch.
(Part two of this article will focus on a review of the newly completed Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail segment from Starvation Creek to Wonder Creek, and passing Warren Falls)
To revisit the complete history of the Restore Warren Falls project, here are earlier WyEast blog articles on the subject: